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Scotland’s population has grown by 2.7% over the past decade, the slowest growth rate of any region in the UK, according to official figures released on Thursday, underlining the demographic challenges facing the country.

National Records of Scotland said that the 2022 census showed that although the population reached a record 5.44 million, the growth rate had dropped by nearly 2 percentage points from 4.6% between 2001 and 2011.

The statistics agency said that without immigration, the country’s population would shrink by nearly 50,000 people. The number of people aged 65 and over increased by 22.5% to 1.09 million people, equivalent to one-fifth of the total population, up from 18.6% in England and Wales last year.

The figures are likely to heighten concerns in Scotland about depopulation and labor shortages in rural areas, which the ruling Scottish National Party blames on Brexit.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party believes ending Scotland’s 316-year union with England would allow it to rejoin the EU and restore freedom of movement with the bloc.

Scotland’s population growth between 2011 and 2022 is 2.7%, compared with 6.3% in England and Wales and 5.1% in Northern Ireland between 2011 and 2021.

Scotland’s once-a-decade tally has been delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and has seen lower participation rates.

Constitution cabinet secretary Angus Robertson said the census figures were “further evidence of the ongoing damage caused by Brexit on the loss of freedom of movement in Scotland”.

The survey showed that there were more than 250,000 more people aged 65 and over than those under 15 last year, a reversal from 1971, when there were twice as many people under 15. By 2011, the groups were roughly similar in size, the NRS said.

Scotland’s population growth has slowed despite a UK-wide surge in immigration, raising questions about how the country’s budget deficit of 9% of gross domestic product in 2022-23 will support growing Financing growing medical and health needs? social care.

Spending watchdog Scottish Fiscal Commission, March estimated Rising costs and an aging population will see healthcare spending accounting for around 50% of devolved government spending within 50 years, compared with around a third currently.

Critics accuse the SNP government of making Scotland less attractive to potential newcomers by increasing taxes on high earners.

Scottish Conservative shadow constitution secretary Donald Cameron said: “Attracting more people to Scotland to staff the under-resourced NHS and boost the economy is vital, but the SNP’s obsession with high taxes and failures in public services, all bad signs.”

Separate research by Scottish Immigration Policy, released on Thursday, found that 38% of Scots want immigration to increase, while 28% want immigration to decrease. The charity said that in 2014, 58% of people wanted a reduction in immigration.

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